When the replacement unit arrived sans software volume control or coax/Toslink source selection, I learnt that "Soundaware products come with a serial number which defines the product type (A300/D300 etc), hence configures the UI accordingly. This is how the same firmware works on different models. We tested your A300 with our chief and it was all good to go. The serial number was the last thing to code before it went out to the courier. The technician responsible for flashing the serial number made a mistake and serialized the A300 as a D series model. That's why your A300 didn't have the settings it's supposed to have. Our engineer is already writing a firmware patch that will bypass the serial number checks and configure the UI to proper A300 mode." A few hours later that arrived and presto, the settings reappeared. Alas, now the main/headfi outputs were muted. I had to overwrite the patch with v3.0.42 to restore the outputs. Would that our own bodies or minds could be this easily upgraded or changed.

With Kinki Studio EX-M1 integrated amplifier.

What I'd already said about the sonic progression from Soundaware's portable M1 to MR1 replayed itself for my A280/A300 face-off. Unlike its brighter display, the older machine was a bit warmer, softer and settled, quite as though it processed mild tube emulator code for a bit of 2nd-order triode enhancement. This year's machine played it snappier, more incisive in general and just a tick heavier in the bass. Interestingly, particularly the more lit-up informative treble impression held when I changed hardware to include a COS D1 DAC and compare A280/A300 in pure digital transport mode. If you thought that the digital domain was impervious to improvements because bits are bits, you'd have been surprised. It suggested that Soundaware's focus had shifted to more subjective resolution via higher transient speed and sparkle and away from the slightly more romantic voicing of the precursors. Percussive elements peeled out more to increase sharpness. By the same token, the calmer rounder presentation of the older unit moved into the foreground a more cohesive rather than maximally teased-out picture.

As it always does, it gave the soundstaging/imaging edge to the A300. Higher separation equals higher localization specificity. That's the core quality which 'seeing type' listeners rely upon. It's immaterial that live music doesn't feature it to that degree. Stereo playback is a different experience. Unlike video, it eliminates real visuals. Intensified playback soundstaging now fills in data which our ear/brain uses to virtually scan the sonic imagery. That gives us blind replay listeners back a sense of sight. If you're the type who attends a live concert eyes closed, you probably place a lesser value on this quality. You probably focus more on tone density, colour saturation and togetherness. You don't (want to) hear the string section as 16 first violins, 14 seconds, 12 violas, 10 celli and 8 double basses. You hear them as one enormous breathing expanding/contracting organism. If that's you, the A280 would feel closer. If you prioritize separation, the A300. Encapsulated in this difference was a sense of subjective distance. Just like being inside a crowd has you see less than standing apart, greater seeing can increase a sense of distance. Feeling more immersed equals closer or more intimate. Thus the A300 threw the subjectively greater depth. As a pure digital transport, it overshadowed the A280Pro particularly in treble illumination and micro detail.

Job 225 amplifier driven direct via the A300's outputs set to variable mode. HifiMan HE-1000 with balanced cable in standby.

Still in the above scenario, to explore direct drive versus preamp intercession, I used COS Engineering D1's analog inputs off the Soundaware's matching XLR outputs; and the D1's coaxial input off the Soundaware's S/PDIF output. Despite the non-critical nature of my listening in this space where appropriate SPL imply plenty of signal cut, analog volume control with a formal preamp sounded plainly fuller and juicier. I'd expect that to equalize above ~60-70 on the A300's FPGA-driven digital attenuator. I operated it in its low 30s There it got demonstrably lossy. Given the Job 225's stout voltage gain, anything higher simply was well beyond the pale. Comparing DACs meanwhile—that of Soundaware in the analog-out scenario, the COS in the digital-out version—the sonic offset was marginal. To accurately gauge the A300's conversion mettle, it'd have to move into the big system. In the nearfield of this setup's lower levels and smaller-scale more intimate type music appropriate for it, the A300's DAC was so close to the far costlier Taiwanese that attempting any blow-by-blow comparisons would have split hairs. And there's no relevance in that.